Implausible Deniability

I had this post 90% ready to go when my Day of Remembrance began Saturday. Who would have thought it could go out of date right away? I figured there was a body, but wasn’t really expecting them to find one so soon, if ever.

Way back when we were all young, a hand-held piece of exercise equipment belonging to my mother disappeared. All three of her children were grilled, probably along with whatever neighborhood children paraded through the house. To a kid, the answer was an earnest “No, I didn’t take it.”

But Tia, youngest and not taking a very good step along a path of deviousness, went one sentence further: “And I suppose if you find it in the oven, you’ll blame me.” She tried a very similar tack, with an equal lack of success, when it was rumored she and Kris Bartleson had put in a call to Robert Redford. (Both of his children were attending the University of Colorado at the same time I was, and the campus phone directory listed not only students’ campus numbers, but their home phones as well.) Tia insisted no call had been made, “but if charges show up on the phone bill, I suppose you’ll blame me.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Tia was in fact blamed in both instances, although she may have never broken down into confession. Presumptions were made.

Which is where I am now, sitting comfortably in my armchair as the national news spools out a missing person story that seems to grow more bizarre by the day.

There are always stories about missing people, including a case from Salida last year that still can generate headlines, where a woman went for a bike ride and never returned.

Gilly, at work, moved immediately to a suspicion of foul play and fingered the woman’s husband, and now, a year and some later, law enforcement is in agreement with Gilly. However, no body has been found, and prosecutors are currently trying to determine if they have enough to bring the husband to trial for murder. At this point I doubt there’s a body to find, because I think — from my armchair — that the husband parted her into bits that he scattered in assorted Dumpsters throughout Denver.

But the missing person generating national headlines these days is Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, and I think she’s caught the public’s fancy because of the reticence of her boyfriend.

In case you’ve missed it — I’m not sure how that would be possible, but I suppose anything is — Ms. Petito and her fiance, Brian Laundrie, spent most of the summer traveling around in a van, with her posting what appear to be rather inane videos to social media about their journey. (Perhaps “inane” and “social media” are synonymous, and that may extend to bloggers.)

But after she posted from the Grand Tetons in Wyoming in late August, no one heard from her. No texts, no calls, nothing. In the meantime her fiance drove their van to Florida where he lives, and he has said nothing about Ms. Petito’s whereabouts. Although he did lawyer up very quickly.

To my mind, there are three possibilities:

  1. He ditched her in the wilderness, where she is roaming lost (or been eaten by bears);
  2. He accidentally killed her, panicked and ran;
  3. He deliberately killed her. And ran.

What none of us know is what Mr. Laundrie said to his family upon his return, but fortunately for him he seems to belong to a close-knit, if ethically suspect, group: they keep issuing written statements full of platitudes to the Petito family: good luck with your search, we are holding good thoughts for Gabby, don’t let the door hit you on the way out of our lives . . .

Ms. Petito’s family, on the other hand, started off with a nice-enough written statement, but that quickly has morphed into larger and angrier demands: if you won’t tell us what you did to Gabby, at least tell us where to look.

But someone on the Laundrie side of this was smart enough to engage a lawyer, who apparently is smart enough to understand this: at the moment, there is no crime, just a woman missing somewhere in the vastness of the United States. As long as Mr. Laundrie says nothing, he can’t implicate himself.

No matter how bad and thoughtless this is, he has not copped to any of the dark suspicions cluttering minds like mine. It looks bad, and bizarre, but for now it leaves him in the clear.

If Tia had understood this, at whatever young age she was, there would have been nothing but smoked exercise equipment, melted 1970s plastic wafting about the kitchen and a mother left smoldering over which child among many would have considered the oven a reasonable place to store a pilfered item.

But now yet another twist has turned in this rather tortuous saga, since Mr. Laundrie’s parents now — only just now — report they haven’t seen him since Tuesday. The Associated Press said Laundrie’s family notified Florida police late Friday about the disappearance three days prior.

Boy, this sounds like a family you’d like to invite over for cocktails, hm? Just don’t turn your back on them at the bar.

In social media posts, Ms. Petito and Mr. Laundrie looked like an all-American couple having the jaunt of their twenty-something lives. In police body cam footage from Utah, where they were stopped after a bystander reported a domestic dispute, it looks far less idyllic and much more mental anguish.

Where did that anguish take them, once the police separated them for one night and then considered their part complete? Another couple — these bodies have been found — were last seen alive in Moab, Utah, one day after the Laundrie/Petito/police interaction. Once dark suspicions start settling, the miasma spreads quickly: was this oddly odd couple responsible for the deaths of these two women? [As of today, police now say no.] Did they ever really go to Wyoming, as Ms. Petito’s family now doubts? Where in the world is Gabby Petito? Where in Florida is Brian Laundrie?

The police were careful to note, after the news about Mr. Laundrie’s disappearance, that this is a search for multiple missing persons and not a crime scene. But you can hear that “yet,” can’t you? I sure can, loud and clear.

*****

So now it is Monday, and a body has been found, presumed to be that of Ms. Petito. There is still no crime, at least not until tomorrow’s autopsy. Mr. Laundrie remains missing, apparently having parked his car at some Florida nature preserve. One armchair theory circulating, not from me (until just now), holds that he may now be an alligator’s contented afterthought. Me? I’m going to suspect he may have shot himself. And then maybe been eaten by alligators.

I realize this may sound flippant, and we are talking about human lives. My original point was just intended to be: as Americans, we all have the right not to incriminate ourselves, no matter how frustrating that might be for everyone else involved, but once you invoke that right, it makes everyone susceptible to the notion that there is indeed something you’re trying not to incriminate yourself for. Like Tia as a child, when she kept going a sentence too far.

I have no idea how Mr. Laundrie thought he could casually return from this trip without Ms. Petito and not have anyone notice or ask questions. It doesn’t imply a great deal of criminal intellect; it makes him seem less smart than Tia was as a pre-teen.

With or without his cooperation, a story is going to play out. Presumptions will be made. Those of us in our armchairs await the outcome.

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